Bob Woodward avoids asking hard questions about ‘Obama’s Wars’

by Barry Weisleder
“‘Is there anybody who thinks we ought to leave Afghanistan?’ the president asked. Everyone in the room was quiet. They looked at him. No one said anything. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘now that we’ve dispensed with that, let’s get on.’”
One hundred and eighty-six into its 441 pages, the political framework of “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2010) is clearly delimited. There is no questioning of the “right” of the United States of America to intervene in the affairs of countries and nations the world over. 
There is no elaboration on the admission that important energy resources are at stake. The vast and valuable mineral reserves of Afghanistan, its potential as a convenient corridor for oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean, and the array of Canadian, U.S. and other transnational mining and energy companies lining up for territorial concessions, do not merit even a footnote. Concerning imperialism as an economic system, which the ideology of “national security” dutifully serves, the book is mute.
But as a booster of the dominant ideology, like its namesake hero, “Obama’s Wars” is effusive. America is presented as the repository of world civilization and democracy, and its “resilient” response to the 9/11 attacks at home is to wage wars abroad. How Obama squares that with his pre-election end-the-wars pledge, and how he takes on the vested military establishment, is Woodward’s literary spin. It is the stuff of his latest “instant-history”.
Along the way the reader is treated to a sweeping survey of the personalities and tactical conflicts at the summits of capitalist political and military power. One is offered an intimate portrait of the young president who strives to master “the game”. As a Who’s Who guide to D.C., this crisply written, very readable book is a useful reference. But that’s about it.
Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor at The Washington Post, has gained a reputation as gossipmonger to the governing elite. From his keyboard (or that of his much-praised, but little-credited chief researcher/writer Josh Boak), a rogues’ gallery of war criminals comes to life. Their interactions in Congressional hearing rooms, Pentagon offices, White House corridors, and the hallowed Situation Room appear to drive all that happens in the world. And, for what it’s worth, Woodward’s characters are more articulate and voluble than their counterparts on the TV drama “24.”
Within a shared imperial framework, Vice-President Joe Biden (“avoid the shame of another Vietnam defeat”) confronts gung-ho interventionist Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calls the war “political flypaper”. An ominous review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy by Bruce Riedel, ex-CIA analyst, delivers a political hot potato: the central problem is Pakistan. Obama muses about taking civic measures to “reduce the appeal of violent extremism to young Muslims”.
However, “this sounded alarm bells for Gates, Mullen, Petraeus and McChrystal”, the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Navy Admiral, U.S. Military Commander, and U.S. Army General, respectively. A debate about “counter-terrorism” versus “counter-insurgency” ensued. The former course is remote-controlled and weapons intensive; the latter requires an extensive, endless occupation, to the tune of one soldier or police per 50 residents. Given the stratospheric rate of attrition from the Afghan Forces (over 25 per cent a year) such a ratio is surreal, short of a permanent U.S.-NATO occupation force of 500,000 plus.
Woodward uses his superior access to powerful people and his uncanny ability to acquire purloined classified documents and coveted private notes of participants, to reconstruct a chronology of debates, disputes, and decisions made within the ruling circles. These he employs to illuminate a number of false dilemmas: Is the aim to defeat, or to disrupt the Taliban? Should the “surge” be comprised of 30,000 or 40,000 additional U.S. troops? To what extent should the lethal drone attacks on insurgent forces in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) be escalated at the risk of further de-stabilizing the U.S. client regime in Islamabad?
It’s 10 overlapping wars in one, says a circumspect Army Lieutenant Douglas Lute. There’s the NATO war (with a Canadian General in command), the CIA covert paramilitary war, and distinct wars being conducted by Green Berets and Joint Special Operations Command, each tracking “high value” targets. The training and equipment commands have their own operations. The Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Directorate for Security are also fighting separate wars.
There is so much money expended, yet so little popular support for the occupation, which (not surprisingly) is seen as foreign, and cruelly indifferent to massive Afghan casualties. This increasingly casts in a positive light the austere, reactionary Taliban, most active in the mainly Pashtun eastern provinces, as well as other insurgent forces. Woodward, who toured Helmand province with General James L. Jones, admits that without American billions, bombs, and economic conscripts on the ground, President Hamid Karzai would not even be mayor of a Kabul cul de sac.
Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, put the Afghanistan war in a political context: “If we don’t succeed here, organizations like NATO, by association the European Union, and the United Nations might be relegated to the dustbin of history.” Shorn of their fig leaf, the nakedness of the malefactors of global injustice would be more visible. Should we be worried?
Life can be hard on publishers. WikiLeaks stole the thunder of “Obama’s Wars” by revealing Washington’s contempt for its allies/puppets in the region, and by exposing Obama’s order for a dramatic increase in the bombings of Pakistan’s untamed northwest.
At home, Obama’s hand-picked cabinet of militarists wants “more boots on the ground”. As Petraeus and others kept agitating for further escalation, ignoring study after study of the deepening quagmire, the president took the unusual step of writing a six-page plan that defined goals and set limits. He fired McChrystal for disparaging its author. But no matter how lawyerly well-written, no president’s scheme can arrest the dynamic of imperialist intervention.
Fraught with terminal contradictions, Obama’s exit strategy resembles the plot line of a George Orwell novel. It starts with a military surge, and is tied to a shrinking social base dominated by some of the most corrupt, undemocratic politicians on Earth. Washington’s surge specialist, the “hero of Baghdad”, General Petraeus, confides, “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
As in Vietnam, the reality is that there is no voluntary exit strategy for the U.S. in Afghanistan—or in Iraq and Pakistan, for that matter. The smoke and mirrors of politically embedded, award-winning journalists can buy only so much time for imperial ambition.
The inconvenient fact that 60 per cent of Americans polled, plus 80 per cent of Canadians, and untold majorities of peoples worldwide demand total withdrawal now of foreign military forces from the Middle East and South Asia is of no concern to the imperialist rulers—at least, not until those popular majorities are mobilized in such a way as to threaten the profits and power of the classes that rule.
Barack Obama made his bed with the bourgeoisie long ago. The cerebral former community organizer pushes trillions of depreciating U.S. dollars to Wall Street and the Pentagon, while starving human needs. That, apparently, is the price of “greatness” in the decadent capitalist game. “Change you can believe in”, from within the system, it turns out, is no change at all. From Palestine to Pakistan, these are truly now Obama’s wars.
But it doesn’t end there. Civil liberties, more precisely the basic rights of the working-class majority of society, are another casualty of the wars abroad. Fortunately, there are some recently published books that do address this crucial human dimension.
One well worth reading is “Dark Days: The Story of Four Canadians Tortured in the Name of Fighting Terror” by Kerry Pither (Viking Canada, Toronto, 2008, 460 pages). It relates, with the narrative drive of a thriller, the harrowing experiences of four Canadian Muslim men who were intercepted abroad and sent by U.S. officials to Syria and/or Egypt for interrogation and torture, with full RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service collaboration. Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki, Maher Arar, and Muayyed Nureddin were eventually released without charge, after unspeakable sufferings, and only due to persistent public campaigning by their families, their lawyers, and allied social movements.
Possession of a tourist map, knowledge of electronics or of aviation, or simply being Arab or Muslim is enough for state authorities, keen to justify “security” expenditures, to implicate innocent persons in terrorism. But behind the zealous cops, spies, and torturers are the policies and interests of capital—the fountain of divide-and-rule tactics in the pursuit of war for profit.
Although “Dark Days” misses the forest for the trees, and overlooks the system served by the lies, hubris, and malfeasance it lays bare, the book rescues the humanity of some of the system’s victims. And it reminds us, in the words of Ahmad El Maati, that “since 9/11, so many others have just disappeared, or are still in prisons, with no right to ask questions.”
National security, which is really about the security of capital from its critics, has been a tool of conformism long before post-9/11 trauma. “The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation” by Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile (UBCPress, Vancouver, 2010, 554 pages) provides a very well researched history of the movements for gay/lesbian equality from the 1950s through the 1990s. The book vividly connects Canadian state discrimination against homosexuals, the spying on and interrogation of activists, and the disruption of grassroots human rights campaigns directly to the imperatives of capitalist rule.
Heterosexism, like sexism, racism, and today’s top-down fostered Islamophobia, is a long-standing divide-and-rule prejudice. It is particularly useful to the state in the event of war—that is, all too often. The ongoing nature of the attack on democratic and human rights (from the incarceration or imposition of ultra-restrictive living conditions on Muslim and Tamil refugees in Canada, to the widespread violation of civil liberties by police in connection with the G20 Summit in Toronto last June, to the latest FBI raids on antiwar activists across the USA) makes it crucial that the process of “forgetting” the historical roots of state repression, and the struggle against it, be confronted and overcome.
Despite much self-conscious, arch-academic phraseology, Kinsman and Gentile make a compelling case, masterfully summarized in the last chapter, that capitalist globalization and the “expanding national security state” go hand in hand. Gay or straight, religious or secular, regardless of colour, sex, language, or ethnicity, working people will find freedom sooner when we come to see “national security”, like patriotism, as the common refuge of many a monied scoundrel. 

> This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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